Test-Driving the Tesla

While the big news recently from Tesla has been its Model S vehicle, U.S. government loans to the company, and a plan for using the Model S platform for several new products including a minivan, crossover vehicle, and a utility van, we decided it was worth taking a closer look at the Tesla vehicle that you can buy now.

It's just been a few months since Tesla announced that it has achieved its first month of profitability, primarily based upon the strength of their Roaster product. To date, they've sold over 700 of the vehicles mostly in the U.S. and Europe, and they recently completed a 241 mile alternative energy rally in Monte Carlo, a feat previously impossible for a production electric vehicle.

The ShowroomWe visited Tesla's Menlo Park, California facility for a combined tour of its showroom, power train assembly plant and test drive. Not unexpectedly, the showroom was filled with Tesla Roadsters, unfortunately, all of them had SOLD tags on them. This is something that we should have expected considering the long waiting list.

Tesla is not only breaking ranks with the auto industry by building electric vehicles, but also in the way it sells them. Traditionally, auto dealerships have had a contractual relationship with auto manufacturers and are separate independent companies that act as the public face of the industry. This arms length relationship has created some issues for the industry, and has left most of the public a bit shell shocked due to dealers' reputations for unscrupulous business practices and heavy handed sales techniques. In contrast the old industry sales model, Tesla's Menlo Park showroom is owned and operated by Tesla itself. Every person you talk to there is a direct employee of Tesla Motors. And this isn't an anomaly, the company has decided to rethink the entire way that vehicles are sold and serviced, and has already opened 11 showrooms and service centers around the U.S. and Europe. By selling directly it hopes to cut out channel inefficiencies (i.e. save money for the company and customer) and build a better relationship directly with their customers. With Tesla's Silicon Valley roots, it's well versed in web and communications technologies and has used the information it collects to zero in on the best locations for future showrooms. So far it seems to be working pretty well.

The Power Train Assembly PlantUp until this point, Tesla's Menlo Park showroom has been a bit special, since in addition to being its flagship store, the site also houses their power train assembly facility for the Roadster. While the rolling chassis comes mostly assembled from Lotus (their manufacturing partner on this vehicle), Tesla does the final assembly itself including the elements related to the battery pack and the power train.

It was interesting to get a look under the hood and to see parts of the vehicle that wouldn't be possible after assembly was complete and we certainly left with the impression that this is a well designed and well engineered vehicle. There are several photos in the gallery of the motor, transmission, battery pack and drive train if you're interested in taking a look yourself.

Driving the RoadsterWhile the Roadster is a unique vehicle, it's impossible to ignore the fact that it's been based upon the Lotus Elise despite sharing less than 10% of its parts in common.

Getting in to the vehicle is a bit like climbing into a race car. If you're "heavy", tall, or have a bad back, you may find that getting in and out of the Roadster to be an experience somewhere between comical and uncomfortable. Considering that I have a bit of all three of those attributes, my entry and egress from the vehicle was a bit undignified. Maybe with a bit of practice I'd get the hang of it.

Driving the Roadster feels much like driving a traditional high end sports car. Fit and finish is good, but initial impressions are that the US$100K+ price tag is a lot to be asking for a car that I had to squeeze myself into. Once underway, it's a different story. Acceleration is strong, in fact better than any gasoline powered automobile I've ever tested, and as I found myself sucked back into my seat, I imagined that this is what fighter pilots must feel like when they're performing multi-G rolls.

Driving around town feels easy and natural. Since the transmission has only one forward and reverse gear, the car operates like a conventional automatic, making city and rush hour driving easier. A few minutes behind the wheel was all it took for me to get used to the slight negative bias of the accelerator, which allows you to slow the car just by pulling back on the pedal rather than by slamming on the brakes. Road feel is quite good and while driving it certainly feels like you're connected to the road through the steering wheel.

The highway driving experience is more like a thrill ride than a commute, with nimble maneuverability and seemingly endless reserves of power for acceleration, it was fun and easy to go around any obstacle (i.e. other drivers). One surprise was the amount of road noise within the cabin. We had assumed that without an internal combustion engine, that the Roadster would be quiet as a mouse, but while driving, particularly at high speed, there's a lot of road noise coming off the tires, so driving noise seems pretty typical of any car with performance wheels and suspension.

Price aside, even with the issues I had getting in and out of the Roadster, there's no doubt that we'd love to be driving one of these on a daily basis. The Roadster qualifies under California Law for a special electric vehicle sticker that allows the car to be driven in a carpool lane with only one passenger during commute hours. This is great for the commuting executive, but make no mistake, even though the Roadster could double as your daily commuter, it's definitely an enthusiasts luxury sports car.

Summing it upOverall, Tesla's done nearly the impossible by proving to a recalcitrant industry that it is possible to build competitive electric vehicles. Ten years ago the industry wasn't even interested in electric cars and in fact spent billions of dollars upon futuristic hydrogen powered vehicles than have never become practical. Thanks largely to Tesla's example, there are now several startups working on electric vehicles, and the large manufacturers all have prototypes and plans to bring them to market.

This is quite an achievement, who would have thought that a startup could turn the entire auto industry on it's side? Apparently Tesla did, and it plans on continuing to innovate and work to change the industry. We can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.